LEWISTON — The Kenyan refugee camp where Abdikadir Negeye grew up didn’t have a manicured soccer field. Their ball was clothing scraps wrapped in plastic. Everyone played barefoot.

But Negeye and the other Somali children in the camp played constantly.

“Soccer is everything,” said Negeye, who is now 32.

Negeye, who still keeps the laminated badge that identified his soccer team at the refugee camp, is now one of about 6,000 immigrants born in Somalia and other African countries and living in Maine, according to the U.S. Census.

Somalia, because of a decades-long civil war and famine and drought, has been the largest single source of refugees arriving in Maine during the past 15 years. A total of 1,621 Somali refugees have been resettled in Maine since 2002, a number that does not include family members who followed them or so-called secondary refugees who moved to Maine after arriving elsewhere in the U.S.

Negeye has lived in Lewiston since 2006. But he has no memories of his home country because he was just 6 years old when his family fled their village in 1991.

He spent his childhood in the sprawling Dadaab camp in Kenya, where he lived among more than 240,000 refugees and asylum seekers.

Negeye’s family belongs to a minority ethnic group, Somali Bantus, who became targets during a civil war that began in early 1991. His parents had relatives who were killed, and so wanted safety for their children. Negeye’s mother and father carried him on their backs as the family walked more than 300 miles from their village in Somalia to the United Nations refugee camp in neighboring Kenya. A younger sibling died after the monthslong journey to the refugee camp.

“There’s a lot of people who have lost their lives on the way to refugee camps,” Negeye said. “Those who are lucky enough have made it to the refugee camps. Some people are killed by animals. There are some people who died for hunger or lack of water or medical complications.”

In the camp, his family lived in a hut with a single room. They collected rations of maize from the United Nations, but sometimes it was only enough for one meal a day for Negeye and his five siblings. Medical care was lacking. Negeye went to school, where he remembered his fellow students were not organized by age or divided into grades.

His favorite subject was English.

“Sometimes we were learning something with our stomachs empty,” Negeye said. “Sometimes we were walking to school without shoes. But I still had that hunger there for education.”

Refugee status is a designation given by the U.N. to people who have fled their countries because of persecution, war or violence. Less than one percent of 14.4 million refugees are permanently resettled in another country, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency. But the conditions in their country of origin made it impossible for the Somali Bantus to return there, and in 2000, the U.S. government agreed to accept 12,000 refugees from that group.


Maine refugee arrivals, by year and by nation of origin:

Refugees are brought to the United States to escape violence or persecution. Here is a look at the number of individuals resettled in Maine each year, and where they were born. It does not include refugees who moved here after first resettling in other states. Note: 2017 data are current as of Aug. 31.

 

For the next five years, while still living in the camp, Negeye and his family were interviewed repeatedly by U.S. immigration officials. They were required to pass medical examinations and security checks. They moved to a new refugee camp in order to complete additional screenings and interviews. In total, Negeye lived in the camps for 14 years.

“All those long waits, sometimes to be honest, I even felt I will never come to America,” Negeye said.

In January 2006, the wait ended.

The family landed in Atlanta, Georgia. They brought a small amount of clothing and a few personal items, including Negeye’s soccer badge. The traffic lights and the highways of the large southern city overwhelmed them immediately. Negeye remembers his frustration trying to understand people with Southern accents as he tried to place a money order with his limited English. Their relatives and friends from the refugee camps had been resettled in other states, including Maine. They felt alone in their new country, so they moved to Lewiston in April 2006.

“It’s a smaller city, less crime and less crowded,” Negeye said.

Negeye was eager to get an education. He enrolled at Loring Jobs Corps in Limestone and earned his high school diploma there in 2007. Then he earned an associate degree at Central Maine Community College in 2011 and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Southern Maine in 2014.

He worked full time while in school. His family received government assistance when they first arrived, but Negeye said they wanted to work as soon as possible. One of his first jobs in Maine was with his father at L.L. Bean in Freeport in 2007. Negeye got a job as a language facilitator in the Lewiston School Department in 2009 and stayed there until 2014. His dad now works at a doughnut shop, and his mom works in childcare.

“Today, my family, they are all taxpayers,” Negeye said. “They are contributing to the community. That is something we all wanted to do. I know the language was still an issue, but there’s a lot of things they could do. The language barrier, it didn’t stop them.”


Total refugee immigration to Maine since 2002, by nation:

Somalia 1,621; Iraq 1,040; Sudan 333; Democratic Republic of Congo 297; Iran 108; Syria 76; Burma 57; Afghanistan 56; Ethiopia 51; Serbia 37; Eritrea 31; Russia 27; Burundi 15;
Central African Republic 9; Kazakhstan 6; Vietnam 6; Bosnia and Herzegovina 5; Uzbekistan 3; Azerbaijan 3; Togo 1; Ivory Coast 1; Liberia 1.

Note: These figures do not include refugees who moved to Maine after first resettling in other states. Three refugees from Cuba and six from Honduras are not shown on this map.

In Lewiston, Negeye and some friends began talking about a need for academic tutoring and after-school activities for young immigrants. Among them was Negeye’s friend Rilwan Osman. Their families had been friends in the refugee camps in Somalia. Osman had advised Negeye to come to quieter Lewiston when he felt overwhelmed in bustling Atlanta. In Maine, they shared a concern about refugee children who were struggling with the language barrier and failing to graduate high school.

“We asked ourselves, if nobody is going to come help our kids, we need to do something,” Osman said.

In 2009, they started the Somali Bantu Youth Association of Maine with just a van and some athletic equipment. They ran a youth soccer program for 50 kids that first summer.

As a child in a Kenyan refugee camp, Abdikadir Negeye found lessons and satisfaction in playing soccer, though the ball was made of cloth scraps and plastic. He helped establish a youth soccer program in Lewiston. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Negeye wanted to pass on the lessons soccer taught him in the refugee camp.

“Being responsible, being respectful of each other, being punctual in everything, teamwork,” he said.

In 2011, Negeye applied for naturalization and took his citizenship test. When he passed, he came to school to find his students waving American flags in the hallway for him.

“People will still question about me being a citizen,” he said. “Today I have a lot of responsibilities as a U.S. citizen, and I take the oath to defend this country and to die for it. My kids are all born here, and this is where I call home.”

His volunteer work grew more demanding. Negeye and his colleagues at the Somali Bantu Youth Association saw a need for adult classes in English and financial literacy. Many refugees also need counseling to address post-traumatic stress disorder. They decided to expand their services. In 2014, Negeye left his job at the Lewiston schools and took the role of assistant director and human resources director for what would be renamed Maine Immigrant and Refugee Services.

“We saw the need in the community,” said Osman, who had also previously worked for the Lewiston schools. “We saw how not only the youth but also the parents were struggling when it comes to adapting to the new culture.”

The nonprofit now employs more than 50 people. The summer soccer program hosted 250 players this year. The entry to Negeye’s office is papered with newspaper clippings about the 2015 Lewiston High School boys’ soccer team, which won the state championship and included eight Somali players who grew up in refugee camps.

“I want to give back to the community that has invested in me, educated me and made me who I am today,” Negeye said. “People, if they say, do you want to move? I always say no. This is where I call home, and I’m not going anywhere.”

He met his wife, who is also a Somali refugee, at a wedding. Their four children are still small – the oldest is just 8 years old – but Negeye hopes they play soccer someday. He will be able to take them to a real soccer field, where they can run in cleats and pass a real ball to each other.

“The first thing you will see them start kicking will be a ball,” he said.


WHAT IS REFUGEE STATUS?

Refugee status is a designation given by the United Nations to people who have fled their countries because of persecution, war or violence. They cannot return home or are afraid to do so.

What does it mean to be granted refugee status?

The U.N. Refugee Agency provides assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced and stateless people around the world. This usually mean providing emergency assistance in refugee camps, including shelter, health care and clean water. Some refugees can ultimately return home or be integrated into the country hosting their emergency shelter. Others are resettled in other countries.

How and where are refugees resettled?

Of 14.4 million refugees of concern, less than 1 percent are resettled, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency. Thirty-seven countries – including Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Luxembourg, Norway, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States – agreed to accept refugees for resettlement in 2016. The U.N. recommends cases for resettlement in those countries, which may accept or decline them. In 2016, the United States received the greatest number of refugees, followed by Canada and the United Kingdom.

What is the difference between a refugee and an asylee?

Both have permission to be in the United States for safety and security. A refugee gets approval to live here before arriving and being resettled with government support, while an asylee comes to the U.S. and then seeks permission to stay.

How complicated is the application process?

A person must first apply for and be granted refugee status by the United Nations. This requires both paperwork and an in-person interview. During this process, the applicant is required to submit evidence of the persecution experienced or feared in his or her home country. That might include newspaper articles or reports about the conditions in that country, a sworn personal statement and affadavits from friends, relatives, doctors or other officials.

If a refugee is cleared and referred to the United States, the State Department then takes over the refugee’s case. The applicant is interviewed in person, photographed, fingerprinted and given a medical examination. The federal government also will review the refugee’s travel and immigration history and other information for multiple background checks. The applicant might need to fill out additional forms for other family members.

If approved, the federal government also determines a refugee’s destination in the United States, usually based on whether that person has family already settled in the country. The federal government contracts with nine national resettlement agencies that integrate refugees into their new communities. In Maine, that agency is Catholic Charities.

Are refugees screened?

Yes. Security screening is the responsibility of the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

How long does it take?

For most people who come to the United States, the wait is more than two years.

Can refugees work?

Yes. A refugee is allowed to work immediately upon arriving in the United States.

What benefits do refugees receive?

A refugee is eligible for federal cash assistance for up to eight months from the date of their arrival. This pays for housing, clothing, food and other initial needs. A refugee is also eligible for federally funded assistance such as MaineCare and food stamps for up to 60 months. State and city assistance are also available.

Can refugees move around the United States?

Yes. Refugees have no choice where they are resettled initially. They then are free to move to a different city or state. These refugees are called secondary migrants. They are still eligible for some types of federal, state and city assistance.

Can refugees become U.S. citizens?

Yes. A refugee is required to apply for legal permanent residence, also called a green card, within one year of arriving in the United States. Normally, a permanent resident of the United States can apply for citizenship through naturalization after five years.

How many refugees come to the United States? To Maine?

The president sets a cap on the number of refugees that can be resettled in the United States each year.

President Obama had increased that cap in recent years – from 85,000 in 2016 to 110,000 in fiscal year 2017. But when President Trump took office, he reduced it by more than half.

As a result, the United States will receive fewer refugees this year than any year in the last decade. Approximately 51,000 refugees had been resettled in the United States in 2017 as of Aug. 31. In comparison, approximately 85,000 refugees came to this country in 2016.

In September, Trump announced the cap on refugees for fiscal year 2018 would be 45,000. The Washington Post reported that is the lowest cap since 1980.

As a result of the decrease in refugee admissions, Catholic Charities Maine is on track to see its lowest annual number of resettlements in five years. Last year, Catholic Charities resettled 642 refugees in Maine; the year before, 425. During this federal fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, Catholic Charities resettled just 323 refugees in Maine.

Where do refugees in Maine come from?

Most refugees come to Maine from Somalia and Iraq. However, they also come from Syria, Ethiopia, Burundi and other nations.

How has refugee resettlement changed under the Trump administration?

In January, President Trump reduced the annual cap on the number of refugees allowed in the United States from 110,000 to 50,000.

That change was part of an executive order, which also sought to temporarily ban the entry of citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries and suspend the entire refugee resettlement program for 120 days. Multiple versions of that order have been blocked by federal courts, and the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case this fall. In the meantime, the justices ruled that a scaled-back version could take effect, which allowed the 50,000-person cap to stand.

The country surpassed that limit in July, though the Supreme Court’s order will still allow some refugees with family ties to be resettled in the United States.


SOMALIA
Somalia chose its first president in decades in February, and the nation is struggling to take steps toward stability. The population of the politically volatile Horn of Africa nation has endured nearly continuous warfare for a generation. Violence has involved clan-based militias, government forces and Ethiopian troops. An al-Qaida-linked Islamic extremist group known as al-Shabab continues to threaten security. Caught in the crossfire: The country’s civilians.

Such strife stifles the nation’s economy. Adding to the economic vacuum are droughts that have led to mass starvation. Suffering the consequences: Again, civilians.

As a result, many people have fled, and a 2014 report prepared for the United Nations High Command for Refugees found that one in six Somalis lived outside the country.

Cultural reference: 2001 film “Black Hawk Down,” about a 1993 mission there by U.S. special forces